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A Roadmap in Grading

by Stephen Hebert, Religion Department and Assistant Chaplain

I’m a religion teacher in search of meaning.

Last Spring I floated what appeared to be a straightforward question to my classes. On the tail end of an assignment that was not executed well (and for which the teacher was to blame), I asked students: “What does a grade really mean?” They stared at me. After a round of clarifying questions, we got to the heart of the matter: most students don’t really know what an “A” means, but they could guess at what it might mean—

  • The student works hard.
  • The student turns everything in on time.
  • The student is “smart.”
  • The student knows 90% of the material.
  • The student participates in class.
  • The student is good at writing, testing, BS’ing, etc.

A consensus emerged: Grades mean whatever the teacher of a given course says they mean. “Great!” I said. “Tell me what your grade in this class means.” When students started giving me another list of possibilities specific to my class, I realized that I had a problem: communication had broken down. My students didn’t know what their grade in my class meant.

I looked over my rubrics and assignments. Amidst these tables I’d surely find something to report back, some way to say to my students: “Here! This is what your grade means.” Things grew worse. Their grade didn’t really mean what I thought it meant. By pouring over each assignment and rubric, I learned that the grades in my class were less a reflection of learning and more a reflection of compliance. For a wannabe rebel, this was a pretty tough hit. I want my students to be creative, outside-the-box thinkers, yet I implicitly stress conformity as a function of their academic success. I always fancied myself as a fun-loving, improvisational Ford Prefect type of teacher, rather than a Vogon bureaucrat who valued conformity and compliance over all. Professional and existential crisis ensued.

I turned to the only place I knew where a cure might be found: the Internet. I read dozens of articles and blogs about best practices in assessment, and ultimately I decided that it might be time to make a change. This semester, in all of my classes, I’m piloting a standards-based approach to grading. Each of my classes is broken down into a set of learning goals (content and skills) that I’m calling “standards.” As the class moves along, students will receive periodic (and frequent!) feedback about how they’re doing on each of these standards.

I’ve got two primary goals in mind here—

1.Meaning. Students should receive meaningful feedback that they can act on. Every student should know what areas to improve upon.

2.Establishing communication. Rather than creating this situation where students are constantly worried about their grade, I want to communicate with students about their specific strengths and weaknesses. Rather than fielding requests to bump a grade up, I want to field requests from students who want to show me how they’ve improved upon previous performance.

What this really means is that my grade book looks totally different. No longer will you see things in my grade book like “Gilgamesh Essay.” Instead, my grade book is arranged around these learning goals. The assignment (e.g., “Gilgamesh Essay”) becomes a tool to measure how well the student is doing on each of those learning goals. When the student looks at my grade book, she won’t see that she got an “A” for that assignment. Instead, she’ll receive a score and a comment for each learning goal pertinent to that assignment. Over the course of the semester, we can continue to check in and see how we’re doing on each of these goals. Have you improved on this particular skill? Are you now able to understand and articulate this idea?

In the end, it’s really about respect. I should respect my students enough to communicate my evaluations of their performance clearly and frequently, providing for them a roadmap toward improvement.

Stephen Hebert teaches in the Religion Department and serves as Assistant Chaplain. He lives in Coolidge House with his wife, Natalie, and son, Gus. When not teaching, he is probably reading, playing golf, or strumming on a guitar. Stephen is a graduate of both the University of Texas at Austin and Harvard University, where he specialized in religion and classical literature.

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